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Brookline residents concerned about license plate data use

Posted by Tom Coakley  July 13, 2011 04:28 PM

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By Andreae Downs, Globe Correspondent

Residents gave Selectmen an earful Tuesday in the ongoing discussions about whether to accept a $20,000 grant for a cruiser-mounted license plate scanning system. More than 40 emails and other communications came in before the hearing, according to Selectman Chairwoman Betsy DeWitt , many spurred by a notice on the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts website that expressed concern about the system and urged people to speak out against it at the meeting.

Despite starting almost an hour after schedule, 10 speakers remained to express their worries about—or in one case support for—the system.

At issue is how data collected by the system would be used and disseminated—the system can record thousands of license plate numbers along with time and the locations of the cars to which the plates are attached.

Most speakers were satisfied with the draft town policy on how and for how long the police department and the town government would use the data.

But a provision of the grant stipulates that Brookline must make the data available to the state and national and other local law enforcement. What happens to it then, and how long it could be retained, were the focus of citizens’ concerns.

“The state’s requirement is the major problem we have with the proposal,” said Kade Crockford , privacy rights coordinator for the civil libarties union.

Frank Farlow , of Brookline PAX , agreed, and pointed out that those with access to the data could discover detailed information about innocent members of the driving public: whether they attend church, frequent bars or the gym, are getting chemo or having an affair.

Farlow also shared comments from state Rep. Frank Smizik recommending that the selectmen not accept the scanning system until it had “legally binding assurances” that private data about innocent people would not be shared beyond Brookline.

Police Chief Daniel O’Leary said that he has talked with the state attorneys who are drafting the state policy for data sharing and storage, and accepted their invitation to be on the drafting committee. But so far, neither the state nor other towns that have the system have policies about the use or storage of the collected information.

Others worried about the mis-use of such data, how secure it would be in any storage, and what the eventual cost of the system might be.

In the minority, Jan Presser spoke in favor of the system.

“The Son of Sam was captured by tracking his parking tickets,” he said. “I’m more worried about crime.”

The selectmen have until September 30 to decide whether or not to accept the grant. They have three meetings scheduled for the remainder of July and August, but have not yet scheduled a vote.

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